The Brood: How often do we truly contemplate how history has shaped us individually? And how we individually shape history?
I wrote a while ago about a new friend I met here in Wuhan, “Susan”. One of the threads of our conversations has to do with one of my favorite history nerd topics: historical contingency. (Oh yeah, baby.)
Essentially, what might have happened if X had not happened? Or Y did happen? What would that mean for me, in the current year Z? Who would I be? If I existed at all? And what might our actions do to our children? And our children’s children? What unintended consequences will play out across the generations? These sorts of questions entertain me endlessly and are just one of the reasons I’m an insatiable fan of people like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who show us how we’re touched by history.
Susan has explained to me that the 1939 – 1940 Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union traumatized her father so much that he was not always the most present of parents, which contributed to her feeling a little unrooted throughout her life growing up the child of an immigrant in Australia. So a war, started by Stalin, fought over a frigid, thinly populated border area of Finland, set in motion a series of events that weakened a family, and sent a daughter on a global, an emotional 50-year journey of identity through time and space only to arrive at an obscure Chinese craft beer store, where she spoke to me.
Had Stalin decided not to invade it’s unclear if she would have been born in Australia. Would her relationship with her father have been different? Would she have traveled the world? Who would she be if it weren’t for Stalin, of all people?
It reminded me of my great-aunt Dorothy, who in many ways is my functional grandmother. She was a child of the 60s. In her early twenties, she was a go get ’em nursing student in New York City. Then, like so many incredible women, a man changed unalterably changed her life. At home one day, she discovered disturbing, violent pictures of her, drawn by her boyfriend. She signed up for Vietnam to escape.
She was in Saigon at the Caravelle Hotel, leaving in an army vehicle when her captain was shot beside her. She saw napalm dropped during the Tet Offensive and witnessed skin melt off of the bones of children. She saw a million atrocities, and it was her job to put a band-aid on the systemic failure that was the Vietnam War.
In the years following, like so many Vietnam veterans, she tried to stem the flood of recurring memories as best she could. She stuck to what nursing and Vietnam seem to have taught her best: keep moving, get that adrenaline. She worked in Lebanon during the intifada. Somalia during the 90s. She learned to fly a jet plane. The Reagan administration wiretapped her because of her pro-Palestinian activism. She met Idi Amin and was once proposed to by a Saudi prince with wives in at least two other countries. (One day we really need to sit her down and hit the record button.)
Who might Dorothy have become if she had passed up on going out with that boyfriend, 50+ years ago? Would she have still gone to Vietnam? Traveled the world? Would she have had children? If so, would I have even known her? And who would I have been, if she had not present throughout my childhood? What if I had not been 10 years old, eating lukewarm spaghetti-o’s, listening to her talk about the war over several glasses of wine at 1am? Would I see the world differently?
Of course, there’s no way to know for sure. There are so many competing variables in day-to-day life it’s hard to know what could have happened. But it’s worthwhile to develop a mental habit of working through possible outcomes of actions in our own present, even if those actions are done with the best of intentions. It’s what James Fallows likes to call a “tragic imagination” in an Atlantic piece remembering the onset of the Iraq War nearly 16 years ago.
The idea of a tragic imagination was certainly on my mind when I was tracing the ghost of Dorothy’s footsteps last January. I was in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) with friends, backpacking in places where Dorothy must once have traveled by armored car. I visited the War Remnants Museum, where the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) unapologetically confronts visitors from all over the world with images of the war. It also confronts the visitor with images of the continuing legacy of American chemical weapons use.
Seeing these images half a century after the conflict, it’s hard to look back at the war’s contemporary proponents and see just how they could have seen that war extending democracy and American power. Much harder to understand how they believed this was justifiable behavior.
That’s the benefit of thinking through contingencies. How will what I do cast a long shadow in history? What are the first order effects? The second? The third? Unfortunately for Americans, our President doesn’t seem to think through these things when he demands spurious, dictatorial investigations to smear and distract. Without our leaders modeling mindful reflection, and media businesses that profit from knee-jerk emotional reactions, it can be hard to remember to do so ourselves. But we have to.
What do we do or believe today that might have bad unforeseen consequences in the future? What change in historical events may have changed your life? What should I write about next? Comment and share your thoughts!
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Written and edited by Dylan Welch, co-host and creator of the Municipals podcast.